I was in a bar with a friend when two girls no older than 21 sat down beside us. I couldn’t help but overhear some of their conversation as they talked about the songs playing on the jukebox. With their age, I could forgive that they were treating songs no more than five years old like they were classic rock’s greatest hits, but I finally had to interject. Overhead, the Dixie Chicks were singing “Landslide” when the pair started talking about how it was one of their best songs.
“Ahem,” I said in my best Woody Allen. “That’s not a Natalie Maines original at all, but, rather, a damn fine Fleetwood Mac cut.”
Suddenly, I was the weird older guy spouting about the good old days. I blew off their eye rolls but couldn’t get past the moment. How is it they got this far, being obvious fans of even some music, and not know? Or know even the Smashing Pumpkins version that dominated ’90s radio?
OK, it was a snob moment on my part, but it sparked a great conversation about covers between me and my buddy. It’s not too surprising to hear someone cover “Landslide,” a mainstream radio staple, but there were definitely songs that are like a knife in the heart to hear other artists try. I came to the conclusion that some songs are just sacred ground and should never be touched. Once they’re out there and have found their most perfect form, we retire it like a jersey; you can always go back and watch the old tapes, but you’ll never see those numbers run again.
For me, the top of the mountain for sacred songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s not because the original is all that great, but because Jeff Buckley took it and made one of the most angelic, perfect songs ever created. It’s a case of the cover being better than the original. (Credit where it’s due, Buckley’s was semi-inspired by a take John Cale had given it, but it didn’t come close to nailing it in the way Jeff did.) I’ve heard the arguments for the Rufus Wainwright version, but I find he’s just doing his best Buckley impression. And for that one guy I once met who thought it was a new Justin Timberlake song, I expect you’re probably still rocking out daily to whichever song was No. 1 when you graduated high school.
Now, it’s true that Buckley’s legacy has a bit to do with it. His tragic end only makes that breath he takes at the beginning all the more mesmerizing, and when I hear someone trying his hand at it at open-mic night, I have to be the guy who walks out. It’s a song beyond us. It now exists in the heavens and not for us to mess around with.
The same can also go to “Hurt.” Originally a Nine Inch Nails “ballad,” if you will, it never found its greatest moment until Rick Rubin had Johnny Cash give the song its most powerful performance. It was a cover so good even Trent Reznor himself admitted that the song was no longer his, but belonged entirely to Cash now and forever more. When Johnny died, he took that one with him.
And then there are the songs so personal, it feels wrong to hear anyone else try to interpret them. Do you know the whole story behind Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven”? Those lyrics come from the worst possible experience a parent can go through. To hear anyone else try to cover this just to have a sentimental ballad in their set may be the worst offense of all. Unless you’ve lived that moment — and I hope to God none of you have — then this one, too, is off-limits.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a worthwhile cover as much as the next. It can take a good set and make it great. It can give some bands their only taste at fame (Kula Shaker, Soft Cell). But can we agree there are some that can’t be messed with? Some we give a permanent tribute in the annals of music? (Cue Kiss’ version of “God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You.”)
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.